Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Honey-Dripping Christmas Cake and the Hungry Crow in the Snow

Then there was the Christmas a friend sent me plum cake lovingly prepared from King George III's favorite recipe. Yes, we're talking about Crazy George here. So I was doubtful, because you have to wonder what a king who's barking mad likes to put in his food. But it turned out he was sane about cake.

I made a buttery, whiskey-drenched hard sauce and enjoyed a dense slice of the cake. It practically exploded with fat, honey-dripping fruit. The last forkful was in my mouth when I happened to look out the window.

It was that moment of a winter twilight when the snow, late hour and dark sky combine to produce an unearthly, plum-blue shimmer. A lone crow was standing on our icy, bare-bones December lawn. It isn't in a crow to be pitiful, but this crow looked as though, under his brave show of black feathers, his ribs were clapping empty.

On impulse I smeared a big slice of the cake with hard sauce, ran out to the back yard to leave it, and ran back in. When I looked out the window, the crow was swaggering over to the cake, but not fast. A crow is always cool. He takes care of business one step at a time. Right now it was whiskey-scented manna from heaven. Well, he seemed to think, why not?

It was now very dark, and my last view was of the crow's silhouette. His wings flared above the cake, every feather tense with satisfaction. He lifted his head, eye sparkling straight into mine through the dark-silver night air. In his scimitar beak was a giant crystallized cherry.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Perfect BLT's On A Day Of Storm, With Tigers

There are long grey veils of rain sweeping through the late autumn day, but a friend and I have planned to go to the zoo, and we're going, by God. Ellen insists on bringing the same sandwiches she's always brought to Vernon Park, from childhood onward.

She makes your basic BLT's in my kitchen, adding red onion, twice the usual bacon, plenty of mayo, and luscious late tomatoes. This is all wedged between thickly cut slabs of toasted homemade bread. The bread is of the "noble brick" variety, which is important. Then Ellen puts her big strong palm on the assembled sandwiches and leans all of her majestic weight on them. The flattened product is then wrapped in waxed paper and allowed to grow stone cold as we drive to Vernon Park.

We watch bears cavort with delight in their daily shower, and it seems perfectly O.K. that we're standing in a heavy cold mist ourselves. We can live just fine in the day drizzling its grey pearls, we just have to put our hoods up. We watch tigers stalk and ripple with their lordly stripes. They chew their way through buckets of bloody treats. If we were more delicate people we'd be disgusted, but instead it makes us crave meat. So we open the waxed paper and eat our BLT's.

I hadn't expected much from these lumpy little doorstops, but I'm astonished at how good they are. The BLT is now a glorious mash with the silky tomato, salty bacon shards and onion bits all smashed together between the indestructable bookends of really good bread, still with the glint of grain. We and the tigers finish our perfect lunches. They lick their paws and we lick our fingers. As we walk away we go through all our various vowels of happy satiation:


Monday, October 11, 2010

The Most Exquisite Lament for Lost Love in Cinema: Maggie Cheung in ASHES OF TIME REDUX

ASHES OF TIME REDUX (2008, director Wong Kar-wai) is set in ancient times in China. The narrator and main character is Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), described as "a fallen swordsman driven by greed and heartless to both friend and foe." A mysterious personal disaster has forced him away from normal humans, as though he had some rabies of the soul. He's festering with hate in a hut in a remote desert. There he operates his peculiar business: he's a middleman who hires famous assassins to commit murders. He does this on the dime of rich people with grudges.

Very early in the film Ouyang Feng explains his business to us in terms so stark and icy we're chilled to the bone. He's a handsome young man, and yet it's as though a monster or a skull were speaking to us, so little human feeling does he show. But we sense he was not always this way. And we become obsessed by solving the puzzle: what loss distorted his mind and scorched his heart to this shard?

There are slight hints in the next hour, flashbacks which show Ouyang Feng struggling with a beautiful girl in red, dimly seen swordfights, suggestions of disgrace, flight and exile. But there is not a full explanation until the end of the movie. Then we meet Ouyang Feng's sister-in-law (Maggie Cheung). We are not given this woman's name; but to Ouyang Feng she will always be the only She. He hasn't seen her for ten years. Because of pride and custom, he will never see her again. She will never see him again. And we find out that the terrifying wonder is, their feelings have never changed. Nobody else exists for them or ever will.

The woman (Maggie Cheung) has a remarkable monologue that explains everything we need to know. We can see from her exquisite clothes and refined surroundings that she has a comfortably wealthy marriage and what anyone would call a happy life. Moreover she's very beautiful, with translucent skin and almond eyes. She's wearing red robes, which to Asian eyes denote good fortune. She has a son, which again to Asians would be the height of happiness. And then she speaks, slowly, without gesture, in a quiet voice.She is speaking to a friend of Ouyang Feng's. And what she tells is like a tragic poem:

"We were young. Ouyang Feng never told me how much he wanted me.
It's what I needed to hear.
He was too proud to say it.
He took it for granted I would marry him.
He never imagined that out of spite I would marry his brother.
On my wedding night he wanted me to run away with him,
but I refused.
Why did he want me only when he couldn't have me?
Nothing really matters anymore.
I used to think words were so important,
that once spoken they'd last a lifetime.
But looking back, they make no difference.
What is important changes.
I was so sure I won, that the triumph was mine,
until one day I looked in the mirror.
During the best years of my life
the person I love was not by my side.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could go back
into the past...?"

Then she says to Ouyang Feng's friend, very quietly,
"Why didn't you ever tell him
where I was?"
The man replies, "I promised you that I wouldn't."
She says, with a smile more tragic than tears,
"You were too honest."

Then this radiant, still-young creature withdraws into the shadows,
with slow broken movements, like a wounded animal.
And she bows her proud head, and weeps.

Heart-breaking. Terrible. But--wonderful.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

RED JACKET: A Poem for my Mother

Kathryn Savides, September 23 1915 - January 26, 2004.
I also posted this poem last year on my mother's birthday. Happy Birthday, dear Mom!

She was borne away by an engine ornate, fiery and black
on a rescue mission: to oversee an uncle's burial.
Uncle Bill had been the ravenous King Kong
in our family fairy tale, bolting rows of sweet corn
and inhaling ingots of butter at Reunions,
beer bubbling out of his ears, plums up his nose,
his roaring beefy tongue popping with hotdogs
and Scottish curses, a new wife
sitting on his hand every few years.
Suddenly he'd exploded, his pigskin heart
split at every seam

and our mother's calmness was frantically summoned
by the hysterical fourth wife.
Mom rode to the rescue on a dragon-black train,
bolt upright and pushing it all the way. Once there
she ordered the special, jumbo casket,
she blessed the giant's exploded corpuscles
with a gentle veil of white flowers,
dignified his furry pagan paunch in a kingly suit of black.
She directed when cables would lower his bulk,
heavy as a crusader in full mail, to the inner earth
where seethed gobs of minerals, and his ancestors' lacy bones.
Old wives' and young wives' cupid's-bow kisses
colored his big ornery face ravishing shades of rose.
At the funeral lunch, the peach-fed oils of Mother's baked ham
soothed mourners' torn nerve endings.
The precise rectangles of her bar cookies
made them feel they could go on.

At home we shivered in coldest eclipse,
for she was the queen of our tribe of dwarves.
At five years old I fought my baby instinct
to stroke her red jacket in the closet where it glowed.
Finally one midnight the dragon brought her back,
and we breathed warm air again.
I'd heard corpses were green, and rotton-bellied with fear
still had to ask.
Yes, she said; Uncle Bill had been a little green,
but was now shining in heaven,
silvery with Grandma and Father Abraham.
She believed it, too.
When she looked up, all of her beloved dead
were sparkling in the constellations.

My hard little coconut head
processed her words. I looked suspiciously
at those stars, privately had my doubts.
But then I looked into her gentle face and decided,
then and lifelong,
never to tell.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Some readers have told me that I can't really call this a blog, until I cough up at least one post in which I gas on about myself endlessly. So here's my stab at it. The usual format is for a phantom "interviewer" to ask a lot of tasteless questions, to which I respond with oily self-congratulation; but just to keep things stirred up I'll be honest here and there.

Q.: What's your favorite scent in nature?

MB: Black locust blossom.

Q.: Do you talk to yourself?

MB: Yes, lots. Sometimes I crack myself up, or argue myself to a standstill. Why not have a great conversation, just because another person happens not to be there at the moment?!

Q.: What are your feelings about cilantro?

MB: I hate it. It's the loco-weed of our decade.

Q.: Do you sweat a lot?

MB: No. There's a saying: "Horses sweat. Men perspire. Ladies glow."

Q.: What movie scene made you laugh so much you fell off your chair?

MB: Sam Kinison as the psycho history teacher raving away at his terrified students in BACK TO SCHOOL. His eyes pop right out of his head and his spittle flies off the screen and onto the audience! I've heard Kinison was a child evangelist in the old days, mesmerizing whole audiences as he ranted at them about hellfire; so no wonder he's so good at this!

Q.: Most sustained comic performance in a movie?

MB: HAS to be Bill Murray as the creepy groundskeeper Carl Spackler in CADDYSHACK. Every crazy squint, every mutter, even his droopy camouflage pants are just brilliant.

Q.: What do you eat to get your strength back when you're feeling blue?

MB: Hot ham and fried egg, heavily peppered, on a toasted onion bagel. With strong mustard, a slice of red onion. And a big old Cuba Libre goes with this just fine. Dark rum, of course.

Q.: What personality types do you despise the most?

MB: Bullies and liars.

Q.: Who is your favorite spiritual leader? Buddha, Yahweh, Krishna, Jesus, Mohammed? Or lots of different gods like in Wagner operas?

MB: Yahweh is such a huge honking name and presence that I'm almost afraid not to choose him. In my mind's eye, to this day, I see his beard of thunder and his gaze of forked lightning just as I did as a child--and I see them with considerable respect. But for me, Jesus Christ of the Gospels is the most ethically sublime. If he actually said and did even a tenth of the things that were attributed to him, he had the most beautiful mind and heart.

Q.: Do you believe in forgiving...or not?

MB: I'm torn. There's a very moving scene in the Japanese movie BRIGHT FUTURE, where a kid has hurt and insulted someone who's been kind to him, a father figure. The kid realizes his mistake and begs for forgiveness. The man just says to him, very simply, "I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive everybody everything."
I know that that's the higher course.

But then there's a tiny little devil in people (including me) that just sort of pops up and enjoys the Spanish saying, "Forgiveness is the first sign of senility." As though holding tight to a good grudge is good for your health, adds salt and red pepper to life. So it's a toss-up.

Well, that's enough gassing on for now. Have a wonderful weekend, folks, and I will now sign off from my REAL BLOG!!!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Lovers In Movies: "Let's raise a glass to the adorable couple!"

I was a very young teenager when I saw a retro showing of the great old warhorse epic, EL CID. Although at that time I was innocent to the point of idiocy, a sort of emotionally pristine Bubble Girl, I couldn't help but notice this: Roderigo (Charlton Heston) and Chimene (Sophia Loren) were individually attractive people, but when they got together on the screen, some sort of alchemy blazed between them and they became smoking hot. Hubba hubba!

It's fascinating to speculate why certain actor couples generate this warm charisma between themselves, and why others remain as cold as though they were emoting from the coffin. We all have our favorites among the warm ones, and here are a few of mine.

"When the six-foot-two Farrell kisses Gaynor passionately and holds her tiny five-foot frame up in the air, they truly look like a couple blessed by a winged divinity, with the space around them vibrating..."

Dan Callahan wrote this about Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in the fine old silent, SEVENTH HEAVEN (1927). If anything, his words aren't enough to convey the magic this couple had--for their audiences, and evidently for each other (they were secret lovers for many years.) SEVENTH HEAVEN unfolds like a powerful charm. Diane (Gaynor) is an orphaned waif, savagely abused and close to suicide, when she is saved by the sewage worker Chico (Farrell). He's a bit of a big lug--an arrogant dreamer, feet in the sewer and head in the stars--but she knows his heart is good, and we know it too. He chases away her abuser, carries her to his seventh-floor garret. Diane's delicate face, as she slowly understands that she'll be allowed to live there safely and chastely, has a lovely, poignant wonder and gratitude. Gaynor's whole performance is a marvel, and in fact she won the first Academy Award for an Actress, for her work in this and two other movies (SUNRISE and STREET ANGEL).
This couple is bombarded with cruel challenges in the plot, and puts an adoring audience through the wringer. We root for them so intensely that in present-day showings of the film, at the extraordinary ending (which I don't want to give away), the weeping, exhausted viewers will often chant the final, ecstatic title card:

"Love is too weak a word for what I feel...I LURRRVE you. Y'know, I LOOOVE you, I LUFF you. There are two f's...I have to invent...Of course I love you."
Woody Allen says this to Annie (Diane Keaton) in ANNIE HALL. I've seen the movie many times and it's STILL a shock late in the movie when Annie abandons Woody and New York for a L.A. record mogul. (In real life it was Warren Beatty). How can she just drop our most beloved neurotic actor, with the fuzzy red hair coming out of his ears and the wit, so tasty and spicy, burbling out of his lips in every frame? He's our Woody doll, bristly but cuddly. And she left without even asking!

"I was a vampire; and she had the sweetest blood I'd ever smelled."
Here, Edward Cullen explains his attraction to Bella, in the TWILIGHT franchise.
Edward and Bella meet cute. She walks into a high school classroom where 110-year-old Edward is masquerading as a dewy-faced Junior for the 93rd time. Talk about bored. He gets a whiff of her deliciously pungent Bella blood,which he finds madly seductive. He wants to leap on her like a cougar and tear out her throat just as a greeting. But he's a gentle, courtly soul (apart from the raving-maniacal-bloodsucking-monster thing) and they work it out. There is no reason why a monster can't wear cashmere, and Edward also dresses very well. Author Stephenie Meyers, who created the characters, is a devout Mormon; so although there are rogue vampires in the plot, not nice like Edward, and they basically chomp up and drain whole human populations, even Meyer's BAD vampires don't smoke or say naughty words. Personally, I'm glad.

The best movie couples charm us the way they charm each other. Sometimes there's a particular scene, an interaction that somehow pierces us. I'm thinking now of TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU--which was marketed as a teen flick, but is something more.(For one thing, it's a reimagining of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW.) The movie makes poignant viewing now, because it was one of Heath Ledger's earliest roles.

In TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, the power of the very young star glimmers throughout. He's a high school bad boy (Patrick), tousle-headed like a young lion, glamorously tough. He's hired to romance the Julia Stiles character, Kate--who's reacted to her horrible ex-boyfriend by becoming prickly and bitter. Patrick tries and fails to charm her, and becomes obsessed with conquering the contemptuous girl. Finally there's a scene where Kate is blowing off steam one night at an all-girl dance club. He's followed her, in his leather pants and black shirt, and is laughed at by the other girls as a biological oddity. But from a distance he sees Kate, as both he and we have never seen her: laughing, delighted, moshing madly on the dance floor to the music she loves.

As the camera slowly approaches Patrick's face, the cynicism slowly leaves it. It's almost as though we're watching the crucial moment of the Pinocchio story, where a wooden-headed boy turns into a thinking, feeling human. In the past this high school punk had been waiting for the day when he could win. But now he feels the vitality of this girl's spirit. As he watches her, he looks like a kind angel who is marveling at the sight of a very strong, very sweet earthling. And in this delicate, wordless moment, in his face he shows us a movement of his heart: this is the girl who will be HIS girl, because this is the one he wants.

Friday, August 6, 2010

That Long Ago Summer: Young Husband And Wife In Tomato Field, a poem

Sun beams fell like stones. Glazed
neck and neck we'd stump down the rows
and when we dug in, each spadeful, pure clay,
had us jumping up and down. Over the fence
cows gandered, udders boggling against
broadbeans and trilliums. They looked dimly pleased,
as though dandelions were turning to wine in their
cool green fourth bellies.

But we were human, and we maddened by degrees.
First we'd wilt, endangered flora,
but by noon the sun had grilled us tough.
A beef-jerky man and woman shoveled and hissed.
You'd be brown as an ape man, your hair going berserk.
Our children would rush out, seize my knees. Mama
nuzzled these baby carrots with her
horse lips.

High noon! oh, ready to cry fire I remembered
night storms going straight down, no time
between crash and flash. Here
red lanterns of tomatoes
sizzled on straw. You took a hot mouthful
into your hot mouth, lost breath: a red kiss
gullet-deep, equatorial.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Best Screen Villain: Wes Studi's MAGUA in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS

Watch him: he's like a monstrous dark image of hate, from his raptor's beak of a nose to the Huron war plumes bristling on his shaven naked head. Everything counts: that pulse throbbing in his temple precedes his devoutly-schemed-for homicides by seconds. His very acne scars have a vile eloquence.

He's subtle. See the fascinating night scene of his parlay with the French general Montcalm. These two brilliant insincere minds understand each other so well, and with so few words. Montcalm smoothly explains that the English prisoners are allowed by law to leave safely. LEAVE safely--he doesn't say, REACH THEIR DESTINATION safely. Magua knows he has been given permission to kill them down to the last man and woman.

Which is exactly what he almost does. As a scout, he leads the relieved and complacent party of English prisoners frolicking along to their doom as though to a picnic. Then suddenly he's the god pulling the strings, delivering the first blow in an ecstatic seizure of revenge as the English are ambushed by his warriors, and bloodily hacked apart with gore flooding their red coats.

Even in this scene of carnage, Magua's focus is unearthly: what he wants is the scalp and beating heart of the Englishman Munro, his great enemy. Driving straight through the chaos like a spear to its target, he finds Munro and cripples him--you will never see eyes more remote and murderous than Magua's in this scene--then, not content with simply killing the man, tells Munro with a terrifying icy triumph that he will leave behind him no issue on the earth: his children will be murdered. Thus Magua breaks Munro's heart before he cuts it out and holds it high.

Wes Studi underplays throughout, except for brief moments in the magnificent action scenes when his intensity explodes. He's capable of great nuance just by slight movements of his eyes. Even in the climactic fight with Uncas (Eric Schweig)--the noble and (it has to be said) staggeringly beautiful Mohican warrior who's attempting to rescue Munro's daughter Alice--Magua has a totemic focus. He leaps, parries, stabs, slashes, and throws Uncas down the cliff face--with the efficiency of a violent dance. Even when he cuts Uncas's throat, and the boy is dead, Magua's expression reveals a powerful distaste, as though he feels disgust for the carrion corpse beneath his hand. That look of Studi's seems like an odd choice--until we think about it and realize that it's exactly what Magua would have felt.

Studi's performance keeps hitting us on the back of the head with a shovel. We can't rest for a moment, because he never can while he lives. And as though everything he's done weren't enough, it turns out he had his reasons. His wife and children were murdered by whites. That is what set him on this frenzy.

In a final turn of the blade, Magua's most perfect revenge, we don't get to just hate him. We have to understand him.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Men and Women Talk About The Ex, With Heartbreak and Humor

"She wanted to take the dogs. But the dogs liked me better."
Mickey Rourke, actor

"I was totally committed to Janet Leigh, she was the star of my heart throughout our marriage, although I did cheat on her constantly from day one."
Tony Curtis, actor. He explains in his autobiography that he was so beautiful as a young man, the girls hunted him down like a dog and he couldn't fight them off.

"He's an asshole, he really is."
Lorrie Moore, writer. Moore was married to a divorce lawyer.

"There's a Spanish saying for a certain type of cold, sadistic, punitive husband: 'He makes her eat ice.' I decided that forty years of eating ice was enough."
J.Z., a friend

"She said to me, 'I'm just not that into you romantically.' And I said to her, 'Then what is it we've been doing?'"
Laura R., about the woman she'd thought of as her lover, D.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword."
Ernest Hemingway, writer, said this about his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. Hemingway had never forgiven Pfeiffer for being (as he saw it) a home-wrecker who pursued him when he was an innocent lad, and lured him away from his first marriage to sweet Hadley Richardson. He now gloated over the "prairie justice" aspects of allowing himself to be lured away from Pfeiffer by a much younger woman. Martha Gellhorn would become his third wife. However, Hemingway only fully learned about real prairie justice when Gellhorn left him for younger men and for her journalism career.

"I realized why she divorced me in the first place. I was in love with her, but she was not in love with me. For her, I was not the most beautiful thing on the planet."
Terrence Howard, actor

"He's a psychologist. He's also cunning. And what he did was stop talking to me. He withdrew, leaving me to stumble and tremble, to wonder what was happening. And when he did talk, it was to ridicule and threaten. He seemed to enjoy his immense capacity to frighten me...soon after our new baby's birth, there were moments when I confronted my husband, telling him I was lonely and frightened. 'Why are you so cruel?' I'd ask him. 'Why don't you hold your daughter? Why don't you hold the baby? Why don't you love us?'"
Marlena de Blasi, writer. She found a kind and loving second husband, thank God, and describes their courtship in her memoir, A THOUSAND DAYS IN VENICE.

"It was as if he'd been attracted to me for my exuberance, and then did everything he could to tone it down. Dutifully, I chucked my red shoes into the back of the closet and wore a lot of grey."
Laura Fraser, writer.

"I would never desert her, or let her feel that she was abandoned."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, writer. Fitzgerald never divorced his mentally ill wife Zelda, although friends urged him to do so.

And finally, this serious but somehow encouraging passage from writer Edmund Wilson's journal about a meeting with Mary Blair when they were in the middle of getting a divorce:

"When I finally left her in her apartment, after dinner, she gave me a human intelligent look, as she said good night, which made me feel her friendliness and her strength: a look of understanding between us on a level above our wrangling. I could count on her, she could count on me."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Father Has Taken His Very Young Family To Devil's Lake, a poem, by Margaret Benbow

For Theodore Savides, April 6, 1915- September 14, 2001
(Happy Father's Day, Dear Dad)

A father has taken his very young family
to Devil's Lake. Dinosaur-sided slabs of
rocks the age of stars stare down
from their dizzying tumble
at these lilies of a day.

Little sisters horse around in melted topaz water
noting too late the thrillingly ominous
absence of the father
who can swim underwater for incredible distances
and now in our midst a dazzling sea monster
explodes roaring from the depths laughing
shucking kids like sheaves
on towering gouts of waves
mighty arms gleaming-scaled with shining lake-beads
and we yell with one throat until we see the monster is
Torpedo Dad
our starry but trustworthy giant
and we become giddy
leap around him like tipsy fish
hang from his ears like fond pygmies
use the launching pad of his kind shoulders
for our brave and blazing back-flips.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

On Deep Survival: "One who is good at preserving his life..."

(I've posted this quote from the Tao Te Ching once before, in 2009. However, because it becomes wiser and more valuable the longer you think about it, it's worth saying twice.)

One who is good at preserving his life
does not avoid tigers and rhinoceroses
when he walks in the hills;
nor does he put on armor and take up weapons
when he enters battle.
In this man
the rhinoceros has no place to jab its horn.
The tiger has no place to fasten its claws.
Weapons have no place to admit their blades.
what is the reason for this?
Because on him there are no mortal spots.

(quote from the Tao Te Ching)

And writer Peter Leschak explains the mystery of survival
this way:
"You must be so alive you simply cannot die."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Part 2: Cee-Cee Says How To Tell The One Bad Cop Among A Hundred Good Ones, continued

I was getting pretty weary of Cee-Cee's remarks about "shit-fer-brains civilians," but decided she was on a roll and I shouldn't slow her down. I said, "Why do you blame just Leroy? There must have been other officers involved too."

She said, "But it was on his say-so. He developed the case in the first place. He made a stupid mistake. He trusted bad informants, believed bad information. He WANTED to believe it. It's as though he was working on a math problem and decided that 2 and 2 equals 5 because he liked it better that way. And all of us who came after him and tried to solve the problem were stuck with it, and nothing worked out right because 2 and 2 does not equal 5. Never has, never will. Nothing can work right when the information's wrong.

"So now I see you got your frowny face on," she mocked me. "You're thinking, Why didn't one of the other cops stand up and say, 'What the f--k! We don't have jack squat on this case and Leroy has been feeding us horse s--t!'

"I know this will stun you, but cops are busy. We have battles to fight every day. We're not lounging around the police station saying, 'Well, s--t, I don't have a single thing to do all month so I guess I'll second-guess Leroy's cases for the last five years.' We don't do that. We trust each other. We have to, or we'd never get anything done."

She continued, "I'm not mad because he made the mistake in the first place. Every one of us makes mistakes. Everyone is a fool sometimes. I'm mad because he was an ONGOING fool. Out of vanity he never admitted his mistake. He was thinking like a goddamn civilian instead of a cop."

I bristled, but she paid me no mind,

"A cop has to believe what the evidence tells him. HAS to, or he's no use. A civilian gets to believe whatever the hell he wants. This is also the way crazy people think."

Cee-Cee also said she was involved in the case. "I did what undercover cops do to keep suspects shaken up, it's not in the rulebook. I don't want to talk about everything we did. But we tried to entrap them about twenty million times, there was never a response. We investigated the living crap out of them, and nothing but good things came up. I began to get a real bad feeling. I began to be afraid that these were good folks.

"I was working with my friend Mark, smartest cop I ever knew. He said out loud what I'd been thinking. He said, 'Those people are clean.' And that's what they turned out to be. There was no case.

"It was really about a private feud, some kind of bad feeling between neighbors going back fifteen or twenty years. You wouldn't believe how nasty these can get.
One side got all obsessed and decided to use the police as their personal goon squad to make their enemies suffer. We hate that, but it happens. We fell for it.

"This whole bogus case, every dollar, every minute, every airplane flight, every meal or mile, was on the taxpayer's dime. Every chocolate croissant in a fancy B&B. But this is what bothers me the most: personally I'm O.K. with acting like an asshole on the job, if it's for a good cause. But in this case I'd been acting like an asshole to nice folks. I'd been hurting people I should have been protecting, and protecting people I should have been hurting. I'll never forgive Leroy for that."

I said, "I still don't understand why you believed him in the first place."

She sighed. After a minute she said, "I wish I had a better reason, but he was kind of our star. He LOOKED right. He looked like he belonged on a recruitment poster. Still does. A big strapping guy, real confident, a leader. Bright eyes, great big smile. Mark said, 'Those eyes are TOO bright.' But he liked him too. Everybody did."

She set her wine glass down. We sat quietly for a few minutes. Then I paid the bill, and we wove our way out of the restaurant.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cee-Cee Says: How To Tell The One Bad Cop Among The Hundred Good Ones

(Before reading this entry, you might want to take another look at my post of August 16, 2009. It describes how Cee-Cee, a retired policewoman, introduced herself to me over the phone and proceeded to flog me like a racehorse for what she considered an incredibly stupid letter-to-the-editor I'd written. By the end of the call we'd stopped screaming at each other, more or less, and I'd said we should meet some time over a glass of good red.)

Cee-Cee and I did meet at a Middle Eastern restaurant which had beautiful rugs on the walls and belly-dancing music, and we did have that glass of red wine. And it was so good we had a few more. It was on her fourth glass that she told me a surefire way she'd discovered, during her career, of spotting the rare bad cop, complete with an example.

"Cops like to be right. Not one of us enjoys admitting to a mistake, especially if it was a big, fat, stupid one. But a good cop will admit it, at least to himself. He'll feel shame and regret. He'll do what he can to make it right, and move on.

"A bad cop will never admit to a mistake unless he's driven to it, kicking and screaming." Here Cee-Cee gave the example of an officer she called Leroy, "because it's not his real name." She spoke for half an hour about a case he'd been involved in. His surveillance included shadowing his suspects on flights and several stays in pleasant domestic cities, at countless meals in good restaurants, the theater, on one occasion the opera, as well as wire-taps and invaded email accounts. After all of this, an unthinkable disaster occurred: the suspects turned out to be innocent. And not only were they innocent, they were as clean as Ivory soap. They had never committed a crime.

"So here we've got Leroy, who should have figured this out after a few months at most. We began to realize he may have falsified information. He liked that cushy investigation. He cost us tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds and hundreds of manhours, he made fools of other officers who trusted him, and by far the worst of it, he caused suffering to the innocent. That's the exact opposite of what we're supposed to be doing. And to this day, Leroy has never admitted he made a mistake.

"Yes, suspects are usually guilty, but once a cop starts assuming that they ALWAYS are, he's in trouble. Every once in awhile, the sonsabitches are innocent. Tormenting an innocent person is the worst thing a cop can do, and the good ones know it. But a bad cop like Leroy will be mad at the innocent. He thinks they did it on purpose to make him look bad. He'll make them suffer, if he can. He'll even put them in danger, if he can. Because if he's arrogant AND druggy, like Leroy, there's no boundaries for him."

I asked, "What happened to him?"

"Oh, we got rid of him. We let him retire young." She swirled wine in her glass, looked at it thoughtfully. "I know I talk a lot of trash about civilians, complain that we have to protect them like babies, but after all, it is all about the goddamn civilians. What else is our job about, except to help all you dumb shit-fer-brains civilians out there live your lives, pursue your happiness, you know?" Then she smiled at me, and drank down the last of her wine.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Coming from the Ends of the Earth to Share Dessert, and A Sweet Life...

The beauty of Marlena de Blasi's memoir A THOUSAND DAYS IN VENICE is that it's true. In 1992 she was a chef and travel writer, saddened by a ghastly divorce, who reluctantly visited Venice to write articles about the food. He, Fernando, was a middle-aged, somewhat depressed Venetian banker who concealed a blazingly passionate heart beneath his pinstriped vests. He saw her across the Piazza San Marco and fell in love at first sight--or rather, half-sight, for as he told her later, he saw only her profile, her wild and unmanageable mass of pinned-up black hair, and a beautiful woolly white coat that covered her to the ankles. He had been agonizingly shy his whole life, and he was afraid to speak to her. She did not notice him at all.

A year later Marlena returned to Venice. The day came when Fernando saw her again, in a cafe, and this time he spoke. She rebuffed the blue-eyed stranger, but he had found his courage and refused to disappear. He spoke no English, she spoke almost no Italian. There were false starts, and a Venetian storm kept them apart, and she fled back to America. This man who had been so shy, self-doubting, and cautious his whole life, pursued her across the ocean with the confidence of an arrow that will absolutely not be deflected from its target. He had found his mate, and that was that.

It took Marlena a little more time to share his feelings. However, in the meantime she cooked him a marvelous meal. It is wonderfully described in her book. The meal ends this way:

"He seems content with silence. I've made a dessert, one I haven't made in years, a funny-looking cake made from bread dough, purple plums, and brown sugar. The thick black juices of the fruit, mingled with the caramelized sugar, give up a fine treacly steam, and we put the cake between us, eating it from the battered old pan I baked it in. He spoons up the last of the plummy syrup, and we drink the heel of the red wine. He gets up and comes over to my side of the table. He sits next to me, looks at me full face, then gently turns my face a bit to the right, holding my chin in his hand. "Si, questa e la mia faccia," he tells me in a whisper. "Yes, this is my face."

(quote from A Thousand Days In Venice, by Marlena De Blasi)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Drunken Politico Chews Up John Edwards With His Chicken Marsala

I heard about this incident from a journalist friend. I won't name the locally well-known politician sitting a few tables away in the Italian restaurant. He'd been tossing back the Old Fashioneds along with his Chicken Marsala. That's probably why he felt comfortable sharing his views on what makes a great leader, with everyone in the restaurant. Keep in mind that this happened right after John Edwards' girlfriend, Rielle Hunter, had given tell-all interviews and appeared in show-all photos. And this is what the politician said:

"I always said John Edwards was a weak wad unfit for office, and now look at this mess he's gotten himself into. When a man running for the presidency can't even keep his damn mistress in check, it's pretty sad. Can you see this guy facing down Putin? Here's old Rielle prancing around in her underpants, giving interviews, flaunting the love child--and what's with the love child, anyway? HELLLLOOOOO JOHNNNYYYYY, didn't your high school coach ever tell you that if you're going to play the big game, you got to suit up? Mine did!

"Now compare this guy with natural leaders like John Kennedy or old Lyndon Johnson. Those were real men. They juggled their girlfriends, kept their wives happy, handled things like the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam, and never broke a sweat. Kennedy had DOZENS of mistresses, and you never heard a yip out of those women. Not one! Yes, there were real honest-to-God Alpha males running the government in those days. These days they're all having damn pedicures."

He sighed heavily for good times gone, and ordered another Old Fashioned. "You can depend on this," he said, pointing at the glass, "no matter what happens. And it's about ALL you can depend on."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Aunt Margot's Great Advice about: NASTY GOSSIP

Maybe my true calling was to be an advice columnist. Ever since I learned to babble, I've been driven to eagerly force huge gobs of unasked-for advice on friends and relatives. I'm just trying to give them a little MUCH NEEDED intelligent direction, but often they're ungrateful. A woman friend might say, "I love you, but buzz off!" A cousin once said wonderingly, "It's amazing how someone can talk like a book and say so many dumb things at the same time." Well, pooh on you, Paul!

But now I have a blog, and can give unfettered advice at great length. If you would like to ask my opinion about something (Please! Please!), put your question in the Comments section. I'll try to have an Aunt Margot's Great (Not Goofy) Advice post every month or so. And this was the first question, a rather serious one.

"Aunt Margot,
I've just heard some pretty nasty, unbelievable gossip about somebody I've known for years. He's not a close friend, but we move in the same circles. He's always seemed like a nice, normal guy, successful at his job, and the gossip doesn't fit what I know about him. But maybe you never do really know someone...How should I treat him? And how can I figure out what to believe?"
(signed) Astonished and Wondering

"Dear Astonished:

I'm no gossip expert. I was raised by sweet, kind parents who never knowingly said a harmful word about anyone. So, I was never inoculated with the Gossip virus. But this is how I'd respond:

A rumor is just a rumor. Moses did not carry it down from the mountaintop engraved on tablets of stone. There is no eleventh commandment which says, "Thou shalt be guilty if enough of us want you to be."

What you should care about is the facts. Google the gossiped-about person all the way through to his back fillings and toenail-parings, if you must. You'll only be joining the 200 million or so fellow Americans, including me, who enjoy this pastime. Look him up in the Circuit Court Access files, which are open to the public in many states. If everything you find out is harmless, or reasonably positive, then the chances are your friend really is nice and normal. You probably aren't acquainted with the next Bernard Madoff, or a debauched monster, or an axe-swinging serial murderer. And, since you're not an idiot, stay focused on actual evidence. Because the next fact, a depressing one, is this:

Unfortunately there are some people of thirty, forty, sixty, eighty and beyond, who have lived their entire lives as Eighth Grade Mean Girls or Zit Boys. They have never moved emotionally beyond their wildly envious, rabidly malicious thirteenth year. The concept of Slander as a harmful (and felonious) activity has no reality for a person like this. There is no rumor so low, unsupported, unlikely, or plainly incredible that they won't do their best to make you believe it.

A chronic nasty gossip is like a drug addict. The high they get is a sense of power. They frantically snuff it, huff it, and gobble it up. They would stuff it into every orifice if they could. A relative who remembers the days when every home had its chamber pot, calls people like this Pot Lickers.

So, Astonished, when you're deciding what to believe about people, remember that reality is always, always your best friend. Don't be one of life's Pot Lickers.

Wishing you well,

Aunt Margot

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Of Animals: "They are not underlings..."

"They are not underlings," wrote naturalist Henry Beston of animals, "they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of earth."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Glorious and Inglorious Foods and Those Who Cook Them

We'll begin with a quote from the book A THOUSAND DAYS IN TUSCANY, by Marlena de Blasi. She writes about food (and life in general) like a divinely ecstatic and perceptive madwoman. For example, this is how Marlena describes her husband's kiss:

"My face is burning where he held it a moment ago as he kissed me, and I like the flavor of him that stays with me and mixes with the tastes of coffee and milk and bread, the grains of undissolved sugar on his lips...like a good buttery Gugelhopf (rich bread) he tastes." I'd think her husband would square his shoulders and walk a little prouder after reading that.
De Blasi even lets us know what she's wearing when she roasts a chicken: a little silk dress "scribbled with roses." And here is her description of the preparation:

"I fill the chicken's belly with a handful of garlic, the cloves crushed but not peeled, then rub its bosom to a glisten with olive oil, finally ornamenting it with a thick branch of wild rosemary. After an hour or so in the wood oven, the skin is bronzed and crisp, the juices running out in little golden streams...I set the roasting pan over a quick flame, scraping the bits of caramelized vegetables and the drippings that cling in the pan, blessing it all with splashes of white wine."

By huge contrast, we have Betty MacDonald's description of her grandmother's cooking. "Gammy" was an adored family member but probably only Sweeney Todd could have been a worse cook. The quote is from MacDonald's best-selling memoir, THE EGG AND I:
"Gammy hated waste, and she taught us that you bake a cake with whatever you can lay your hands on." This included a little onion, old moldy jars of jam, a sludge of syrup, leftover bread dough, a few grapes, cherries or dates, and always to use old bacon drippings instead of butter or shortening. "Her cakes were simply dreadful--heavy and tan and full of seeds and pits." Even the family dogs and chickens refused to eat the cakes. They began to "pile up in the yard alarmingly." Fortunately, a neighboring family had less critical tastes. In fact, this family enjoyed eating dog biscuits, relishing the tang of dried blood and bone. Gammy's cakes were a huge hit with them. They gobbled them all up and begged for more.

Patience Gray in her memoir HONEY FROM WEEDS admires the impeccable taste of her friend Irving: "His sense of perfection found expression in cooking." Unfortunately, this led to his flinging a badly cooked duck out of the window in the presence of his famished, astounded dinner guests. The inferior bird got snagged on a drainpipe several stories up. Eventually it had to be retrieved by the Fire Department, complete with ladder. Neighbors had complained, because this happened during hot summer and the bird began to stink tremendously. Hopefully the starving guests got at least a little omelet and a few greens.

When the great film director Akira Kurosawa was a child, he often spent the summer in a remote country village where his father grew up. In his memoir SOMETHING LIKE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY he describes this interaction with an old resident, which took place sixty-five years before he wrote about it:
"Once when I visited a farmer's house, he served me a vegetable dish with miso bean-paste sauce cooked in clamshells--a style called kaiyaki in this part of the country--and fish. While he drank rice wine over his meal, he said to me in thick dialect, "You might wonder what could be interesting about living in a hovel like this and eating slop like this. Well, I tell you, it's interesting just to be alive."

Kenny Shopsin would agree with him, even though he himself never eats slops. Here's a quote from the book EAT ME: THE FOOD AND PHILOSOPHY OF KENNY SHOPSIN.

"I like everything about this life. I like waking up in the morning knowing that I am going to the restaurant to cook, that something unexpected will happen to me in the kitchen, and that no matter what, I will learn something new. I like the actual process of cooking. I like shopping for the food that I cook, and I like my interactions with the people I meet while shopping. I like my customers, and I like working with my kids. It is a simple existence, but for me the beauty is in that simplicity. These are the things that bring me pleasure--and they bring me great pleasure on an extremely regular basis."

And nobody can ask for more than that.

Finally, in an homage to a starry night and companionship and strong tea, we'll close with another quote from Marlena de Blasi:

"Fernando (Marlena's husband) turns back to look at the village, says the firelight becomes the ancient stones. He kisses me gently and holds me...under a raw blue sky sugared in tiny stars we walk back home along the icy road, Fernando leading. We build up the fire and we sit close to it, sipping hot, sweet tea."

Monday, February 22, 2010

"Goddamned Poets," a poem, by Margaret Benbow

Today a poet friend sent me images of himself
in performance totaling,

unbelievably, 10,000k, crashing into my computer
like an eighteen-wheeler. There

are several different views of him preening at a lectern
so that one could
admire him

from every angle. What is it about poets? He's a
pretty good guy

I told my brother Larry about this, and said I was glad
to be

free from such juvenile vanity
Larry then brought up

irrelevantly, I feel,

a painful scene at a reading where some punk kid

himself by making the big mistake of supposing
it was his turn to read.

It was MY turn.

Larry said that he "much admired the steely smile
with which you refused to yield the stage,"
but that some might call it vanity.

Oh, bullshit.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Watching A Valentine's Movie With The Honey

In honor of Valentine's Day, you should consider having a sensuous and sumptuous evening at home with Mr. Honey rather than following the herd to an overbooked, overpriced restaurant, the Chump's Delight, where your champagne and the single rose will break the bank for weeks.

This Valentine's Eve, you can be bohemian young lovers again. Rent a good movie, buy a bottle of red--and this beverage doesn't have to be of a quality to make you speak in tongues, see gold angels, titillate your spark plugs or make your boiler explode. It's just WINE, for Pete's sake. But maybe you SHOULD bring home one of those quiveringly delicious desserts from the deli, say, that dear little cake with the chocolate ganache that you've eyed all year, but feared was too precious and sinful to indulge in. Tonight is the night to indulge.

You've got your favorite romantic movies, I've got mine. Some folks love the classics, like GONE WITH THE WIND. They focus breathlessly on the scene where Rhett carries a passionately squeaking Scarlett up that endless staircase. Hubba hubba! Personally I've never felt the same about that scene, since reading that Clark Gable was forced by a sadistic director to repeat it twenty times. By the last few trudges up the staircase he was trembling, shaking, drenched with sweat, furious at the director, and terrified that he was popping a hernia. Vivien Leigh also shared with friends that she was mentally holding her nose during this scene because of Gable's unhygienic dentures. This is not romantic! Or there's CASABLANCA, but the ending still leaves me thunderstruck. Bogey and Bergman are plainly soulmates. Even their hats look perfect together, yet he forces her to fly off with the freedom-fighter Paul Henreid. Does anyone really doubt that Henreid could fight the Nazis much better without Bergman tripping after him in her spectator pumps?

Rent your choice movie, whatever it might be. Next, make a snack that rounds all bases. Personally, I always like a special popcorn that I drench not only in garlic butter but in paprika and in the deliciously sharp chedder cheese that comes in Kraft dinner mixes. In a once-a-year spirit of abandon, you might even throw away the hard little noodles.

If you're very lucky, you may have inherited from your parents an ancient, enormous hide-a-bed sofa, the original kind that's about the weight of a mammoth elephant. This is not really a sofa at all, but a boulder carved to resemble a sofa. It will probably outlive you, so you might as well enjoy this Rock of Gibralter and soften it with fuzzy afghans.

On Valentine's night, let down the hide-a-bed. Put the magnificently reeking popcorn, the wine and the chocolate delight within easy reach. (And by the way, don't be afraid of the popcorn. Garlic adds character to kisses.) Close the curtains snugly against all of those rampant black ice-gales raging through the February night--but not in here. Then turn on the movie, wrap yourself and your sweetie in the embrace of a warm comforter, and watch a couple like the two of you fall in love as though flinging themselves down a well or catapulted to the stars.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Two Favorite Images Of Marriage, In Book And Film

Today is the wedding anniversary of some good friends, and I want to honor it with two beautiful images: one from a book I loved as a child, one from the last film of the great director Akira Kurosawa.

I'm a member of the generation that was weaned on the Babar picture books, created by Jean de Brunhoff. Babar is a noble, smart, jolly, kind and loving elephant who bravely meets every challenge that an orphan faces in a harsh world. We, his peewee readers, had suffered with him through incredible hardships which illustrator de Brunhoff didn't whitewash. When Babar's father, the King Elephant, dies from eating a bad mushroom, he's painted a ghastly green. When Babar's mother is shot by wicked hunters in pith helmets, she falls with a look of agony on her face. But Babar meets every challenge bravely, and rises to become King of the Elephants himself. After everything we'd gone through with him, it was a huge satisfaction to see him in his place in the sun, complete with red royal robes (fluffed up with an ermine border) and golden crown.

Now that Babar is King, he can marry his sweet friend and soulmate Celeste. We readers (at least the girls) have been primed for this event for some time, since Babar and Celeste have known each other from childhood. The wedding is a magnificent affair, but my favorite image occurs after all the crowds and pealing bells have left.

A relative very kindly sent me the link to this picture, which is #9:


It's nighttime, and Babar and Celeste are standing outside in the dark. They're side by side, and we see their silhouettes: Babar in his royal robes, Celeste in her snowy wedding dress, both with major crowns. They're looking up, silently and happily, into a vast starry sky.

For me, this picture illustrates a saying which a very wise person told me: "Good partners aren't always gazing into each other's eyes morning, noon and night. But they're looking in the same direction." And my next favorite Marriage image, from the film MADADAYO, also reminds me of this.

MADADAYO was the last film of the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The film was greeted by many with savage reviews, and some called it a work of senility. But Kurosawa's senility, if that's what it was, still had lovely flashes of power which would have been considered the peak of achievement for any other director.

In MADADAYO, during World War II, the very old teacher and his wife have been bombed out of their home. They have only a three-walled gardener's hut to live in. In the next fifteen seconds we see their next year in the wheeling of the seasons: the old couple sitting quietly together on the open side of the hut, peacefully looking out, in every weather: through springtime blossoming to scorching summer to storms of leaves to snow. It's a sequence of stunning emotional power, because although they've lost what most people would call "everything," what we sense is their enjoyment and completeness. They have each other, and an interesting world to look at, and so they have everything.

(Happy Anniversary, and many more of them, N. and J.!)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Part 2: New Year's Eve: Billy In Trouble (continued)

(Blogger's Note: I posted last week's excerpt --New Year's Eve: Billy In Trouble--as a cautionary tale. It was meant to point out to hard-partyers of all ages that there are worse things than boredom. But it turns out I didn't have the heart to leave Billy at the point of being torn limb from limb by backwoods Deliverance-type smashed-drunk savages, or gobbled alive by a wild dog pack, so here's the rest of the excerpt. As it begins, Billy is being thrown out of a speeding car. He is the narrator.)

"...He's throwing up! He'll ruin the car!" Friedelund yelled, and I was seized by enormous hairy hands and flung out the door of the moving car, sailed through at least twenty feet of night air like a shooting star and landed rolling in the ditch. The car peeled out smoking. The dog pack began howling again.

"I stayed put in that ditch, afraid to so much as put my head up. Between the young savages and the wild dogs, I didn't see how I dared stir all night. I lay there shaking as it grew colder and colder. I wondered if people could go crazy from fear.

"I'd just had this thought when headlights swung over the hill and a car followed fast. I thought it was the seven giant kids coming back to finish me off. I tried to crawl away fast and low like a snake, and collapsed. The lights swung over me. I snapped tight into the fetal position, hoping to protect vital organs, and locked my arms over my head. The car slowed, then stopped. There was a pause. Then the car door opened and there was the sound of a great big boot setting itself down with deliberation on gravel. Another boot followed, and after a minute, the boots approached me.


"I knew that voice. It was Brian Aaltonen, my Uncle Joe's deputy sheriff, and that was Brian's shaving lotion, the very one Joe had teased him about that afternoon. "Whoo hoo!" Joe had said. "Beware all fillies!" Now I lay there with my nose frozen by icy snot to ditch weeds and although I'm not religious I thought silently," Thank you Lord of mercy, thank you Lord God of Hosts for Brian."

"Goddamn it, Billy, your uncle told you he never wanted to find you passed out and buck naked in a ditch somewheres. Was it too much to ask?"

"I'm not naked," I said. My coat and jeans had a hell of a lot of peppermint schnapps spilled on them, but at least I was still wearing them.

Then I couldn't remember moving, but somehow found myself in the front seat of Brian's car. He said, "If you throw up in my car, I'll nail you to the hood like an ornament."

He drove me back to Uncle Joe's without a word. I kept looking at him sideways. Brian dressed for New Year's Eve was a sight to behold. He wore black from head to foot. He had a fine, bulky black leather jacket that made rich sounds when he moved. He was laden in gold, a flash of chains at his neck, but the gold was not brighter than his blond mullet.

I kept expecting a big meaty haranguing lecture from him, but there was none. I couldn't believe it. When we approached Uncle Joe's driveway he turned the engine and lights off.

"Window?" he said, and we coasted right up to my bedroom window.

"See you in church," Brian said. Then I climbed out, and he coasted away. We never mentioned it again.

(excerpt from the novella BILLY IN TROUBLE.)